One of the most striking exhibits in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is the three towers of photographs taken in Eishyshok, documenting that shtetl’s Jewish life before it was destroyed by the Nazis. Viewers are encircled by 1,600 photographs collected by Dr. Yaffa Eliach, a professor at Brooklyn College who was born in Eishyshok. Now, Eliach has published a book that links together the moments captured in the photographs, presenting a full and textured description of the once vital community: It is a work about one town, with clues to many pasts.
Once There Was A World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok (Little, Brown) has been named a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in Non-Fiction. (The awards are to be announced after this issue goes to press.) A massive project spanning 826 pages that took more than 17 years to complete, the book is impressive in its layers of research and details, and the deep underlying passions of the author, a pioneering scholar in Holocaust studies and daughter of one of the founding families of Eishyshok.
WETA, a PBS station in Washington, D.C., is producing a television documentary based on the book and exhibit. In September 1997, Eliach, along with her family, a film crew and about 40 others with ties to Eishyshok, returned to the shtetl for 10 days. The program will air next year.
Contemporary Eishyshok is a town without Jews. Now part of Lithuania, the shtetl, 40 miles from Vilna, belonged to Poland in the years between the World Wars; Jews lived in the market town since the 11th century. Before the Holocaust, the Jewish population of Eishyshok was 3,500. Most of the Jews were massacred in 1941. Eliach and her immediate family escaped and were hidden by Christians. After the town was liberated by the Russians in 1944, Eliach, her family and the other surviving Jews returned to Eishyshok; her mother and baby brother were killed in front of her by a band of uniformed Poles. Her father, who had been a leader of the town, was arrested and sent to Siberia on trumped-up charges. In 1946, the author went to Israel with an aunt and uncle; 10 years later her father, after his release from prison, followed.
One of Eliach’s goals, as she tells The Jewish Week in an interview in her East Side high-rise apartment, is to correct the stereotypical views that many hold of shtetl life. For Eliach, the images in the stories of Sholem Aleichem and even the photographs of Roman Vishniac don’t present a complete view, nor do they reflect the changes that modernity and Zionism brought to the shtetl. She explains that not all shtetl Jews were poor, nor were their lives uniform, nor were women powerless.
A professor of history and literature in the Judaic studies department who was a student of Professor Salo Baron, “the most outstanding historian of the 20th century,” and who also studied with Professors Cecil Roth, Isaiah Berlin and Arthur Schlesinger, Eliach refutes those reviewers who have characterized “Once There Was A World” as a yiskor book, referring to memorial volumes published about specific towns by survivors that are more like community albums. She notes that those books were not researched historically, rather they were based on various people’s memories and viewpoints.
“I wanted this to be an accurate historical document,” she says. She gathered diaries, letters, public records and other resources in private and public archives — some newly accessible after the break-up of the former Soviet Union — and interviewed as many people who once lived in the town as she could locate, traveling to six continents. She explains that she documented “every element of their testimony” as well as her own memories.
Some former residents of Eishyshok were reluctant to talk, and in certain cases she had to trade items like television sets, medicines, an agreement to repair a leaky roof, jogging suits for interviews and photographs. Some of her subjects carried centuries-old grudges and wouldn’t speak until she apologized for perceived wrongdoing on the part of previous generations of her well-to-do family back in Eishyshok. But many were eager to share their stories, affirming, as her father said, that “at least the people, and perhaps even God, will remember that there once was a world filled with faith, Judaism and humanity.”
Featuring 430 photographs, the beautifully designed book tells the stories behind the photos, of how life was lived, what mattered to these people, descriptions of home interiors, kiddush arrangements after Shabbat services, marital decisions, treatment of the mentally ill, the resolution of communal disputes in the synagogue, religious conversion, the coming of electricity and movies to the shtetl. More than 100 pages of notes, charts, sources and a glossary follow the text.
One theme that emerged from her research, she explains, regards the position of women. In Eishyshok, women wielded power. Successful in owning and running businesses (often while their husbands were studying), they spoke more languages than the men and were also in command at home; some acquired learning too. She found evidence that the rabbis granted women permission to recite the mourner’s Kaddish in synagogue when no male members of their family were present.
Eliach came up with the idea for documenting the normal life of her shtetl back in 1979, while in Europe as a member of President Carter’s Holocaust Commission. On a flight between Warsaw and Kiev — somewhere above her hometown — she began thinking that she wanted to create a memorial to life, not death, and chose pre-War Eishyskok as her model. As a Guggenheim fellow, she traveled to the town in 1987 and, by coincidence, met the nanny who saved her in the 1941 massacre. This woman showed her all around the town and brought her to her grandmother’s house, where her mother was murdered. But she couldn’t go inside. (She did go inside last year with the PBS crew, and stood with her husband, daughter and grandchildren on the very spot her mother was shot.)
At the mass graves of the thousands of men and women killed in 1941, she became mesmerized with images of the town as she knew it. She recalls feeling surrounded by the townspeople, who were not skulls and bones but very much alive, skating, celebrating bar mitzvahs, smiling. “I heard them talking to me, this is they way you should remember us.” Later, back in New York, when she conveyed this experience to the Holocaust Museum’s exhibition designers, the idea for the tower of photographs was born.
Eliach’s collection of photographs from Eishyshok numbers 10,000. Her own connection to photography goes back to the shtetl where her grandparents were the town photographers. Hanging in her Manhattan study is an enlargement of the last photo taken by her grandmother before she was killed in 1941: 4-year-old Yaffa in a gingham dress surrounded by chickens. When she left Eishyshok in 1945, the author hid a number of family photographs in her shoe. Now, lining the walls of her study are thick binders filled with photographs, all numbered and labeled; she seems like she could easily access any of the thousands of pictures.
The 61-year-old professor and her husband, Rabbi David Eliach, who met when he was her high school principal in Israel, have lived in New York since 1954. For 44 years, Rabbi Eliach was the principal of Yeshivah of Flatbush. She studied at Brooklyn College and began teaching there in 1969. The author of “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust,” she founded the first Center for Holocaust Studies, which she closed in 1991, merging its holdings with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park.
In her apartment, she seems surrounded by plants and flowers, original work by Israeli artists and photographs of 12 grandchildren ranging in age from 6 months to 16. The decor is upbeat and modern, with an oversized movie screen taking up one wall. Ceaselessly positive, Eliach says she loves movies and she says she enjoys her “normal life.” But Eishyshok — the first word pronounced by many of her grandchildren — is never far away.